Written on January 14th, 2020
It is my understanding that history is always understood in the abstract—a comprehension composed of blended imagination, early photographs, and other muddled snapshots into the past. The abstract is metaphysical and impalpable, yet it is capable of cradling intense emotion. When the history is one’s own family, when it has defined the entire trajectory of one’s forebears and is visibly engrained in the identity and character of one’s relatives, the pain can permeate generations. Pain reverberates unlike the mundane occasions and occurrences that can be passed down through time but never again exist in more than second-hand memory. Three generations after the holocaust, I struggle to recall the acute details of my Grandfather’s escape from Czechoslovakia. From two generations of story telling, I will never understand or fully grasp the tragedy of my Great Grandmother and Great Aunt’s failed escape from Eastern Europe and liquidation in Auschwitz. Still I feel the pain in my own way, a distorted reflection of my ancestor’s suffering. It is real to me in a way that history isn’t. I carry it wherever I go.
I knew when I decided to study abroad in Germany that I would soon be taking back my heritage. With Jewish roots in Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Russia, I know I will be confronting my family’s history in the places where it crumbled. Despite the pain embedded within my identity as a descendent of a holocaust survivor, I anticipate feeling my past in a new way. I know that my pain in the context of my new surroundings will trigger a new set of emotions, new questions. Living and studying in Germany, breathing the same air that my Grandmother breathed, speaking the same language that my Grandmother never stopped speaking.
People always seem surprised to hear that I am studying German in school, as a Jew of Central and Eastern European descent. In lessons about the Holocaust throughout my formal education, Jews have always been categorized as a distinct entity spread throughout Europe. Of course, Jews do share common religious traditions and values, but in struggling to conceptualize the scale of such an atrocity as the holocaust, lessons often zoom out too far. My Grandmother was German just as much as she was Jewish. She was proud of her German heritage even after she escaped from Munich, even after witnessing the frightening hostility of Kristallnacht and watching her temple burn. In returning to Germany this semester to study German and various elements of the European Union, I reclaim my origins and invest in a new phase of my identity as a German Jew. I know my Omi would be proud. When I reflect on the Holocaust as a Jew of German descent, I do not forgive and I do not forget. I move on so as to reconcile my German heritage and take back my roots.